The following is the full story of my summer 2017 hiking trip. Enjoy!
Somewhere between the third and fourth lightning bolt: I lost it. My childish whimpers turned to full-fledged sobs and I screamed into the sopping blackness around me. I was 22-years-old. I pulled it together and helped my brother set up the tent. I probably retrieved the stakes and spread out the tarp. Yet, I distinctly remember hyperventilating and freezing like a statue while the water beat down on us and Zak did all the work.
Just two days earlier, I’d been romanticizing about the three-day adventure. Zak and I, expert travelers, would hike the longest trail in Indiana: The Knobstone. We would start at mile marker 46 and work our way to zero. All in three days.
Once we set off, it was clear the Knobstone was far from flat though. It climbed high before descending into creek beds, weaseling around the tree trunks and testing our sense of direction. Time became quite relative. We measured it by mile markers, lodging them as trophies in our brains. Forty-five was gleeful; thirty-nine: Nearly vertical. By the time we hit Elk Creek Lake at 32.5, I wanted to collapse onto my sleeping bag.
And sleep came quickly on the trail. It rushed us into the dew of the morning and the stiff stretching of limbs. But there was no time to linger. Once our packs were loaded, we waved goodbye to our little lake and followed the trail to higher ground. As we did, Zak and I breathed sound into the forest, speaking of future goals and playing word games—anything to distract ourselves with the passing miles.
With each conversation though, the sky was growing darker. Around five p.m., we passed a small group camp— the first people we’d seen on the trail thus far. It was at mile 20, and we’d already been at it for seven hours. Despite that fact, and the dull throb in my legs, I insisted we hike on.
God bless him. My brother asked if I was sure. He said stopping was “totally fine,” that it was probably a smart idea. He must have asked me three or four times. But my stubbornness remained.
“No,” I said, shaking my head firmly. “We said we would get to mile 18. This isn’t 18.”
So we passed the campfire community. We forged ahead and hiked straight onto a narrow ridge, its trees already whistling with the wind. “I think it’s supposed to storm tonight,” I remembered with sudden terror. “Did you see when?
The answer, was mile 19. Right after we passed the #19 marker, the clouds began to hurl rain and wind. It came with a fury and we desperately searched for somewhere, anywhere, to set up camp. But we were out of options.
Zak began staking the tarp in the middle of the trail and pulling out the tent rods. That’s when, as you might remember, I froze. While Zak was contemplating the best tent setup with hawk-like efficiency, I was contemplating my imminent death and how likely it was that I could write a note in time- preferably one that didn’t convey the extent of my cowardly last moments.
Meanwhile, Zak set up our tent and began transporting our bags inside. I threw off my shoes and crawled into the shelter, gulping for air. With the immediate danger behind us, my cries began to slow.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, spreading emergency blankets over the groundwater. “I just got so scared.”
I stared down at the blankets, mopping the mess and avoiding eye contact with the one who undoubtedly had just saved my life.
“I’m so sorry,” I softly repeated. But Zak merely grabbed a blanket and helped me mop. He told me I was okay, that I’d always been okay, and that he would protect me.
And that was the last we spoke of it. Zak grabbed the peanut butter and fished for the loaf of bread. It was an audacious communion by lantern-light, a moment I’ll never forget. We sat reverently in our little tent, dreaming of hot showers and waiting for the storm to end.
But the morning came and the sun resumed its place. The morning came and I was still the mess of a girl who’d panicked during the storm. Zak might have been okay with it, but I wasn’t. So I slipped on my soggy Keen sandals and walked outside to face myself.
I was the muddy residue of a naive hiker, a mass of deflated pride. I tried to make sense of the night before. It was just like me to throw caution to the very-literal wind. Just like me to view stopping early as a personal failure, a sign of weakness. Clearly, it wasn’t my best idea, but it was one I’d entertained many times before. Maybe this time, I could learn from it.
There are so many clichés about strength, and we consume them like bread, pasting them on Pinterest boards and living room walls, failing to acknowledge that we are, ultimately: Human. That hiker who freaked out in the middle of a storm? Human. That young woman who decided to hike the longest trail in Indiana? Also human. We’re on a sliding scale of humanness, my friend, and some moments are prettier than others.
But that moment in particular did teach me two very important things. One: I am incredibly blessed to have a brother whose love is so steadfast, and two: I wasn’t a quitter.
“Okay, so you’re not a big fan of hiking during storms,” I told myself. “Duly noted. But you certainly aren’t giving up.”
So I wrapped my feet in Band-Aids, wrung out my socks and helped pack up camp.
We hiked at an honest pace that day, attacking the roughness of the land with dirt-creased faces and determination. By afternoon, the hills flattened out and we breathed a sigh of relief. We were almost to the finish line. And I was already feeling more composed. Maybe I wouldn’t redeem myself, but I sure as heck would get a good story out of this.
That’s when Zak nonchalantly turned and asked: “What if we finish today?”
Between my wounded feet and dreams of a hot shower, I was hesitant to answer.
“Think about it,” he offered. “We could hike 14 miles today, get to the next trailhead and call our ride from there.”
Fourteen miles. That seemed like a job for a “brave hiker girl,” and I was pretty sure she’d run, screaming like a banshee, into the last night’s storm.
“I want to,” I said. “But I’m really not sure I can.”
“Sure you can.” He said simply. “Why don’t I take some of the weight from your pack?”
One mile later, the decision was made: We would hike 14 miles. I would carry everything that was currently in my pack and I wouldn’t panic. I had made up my mind.
We ditched our extra water and pushed the pace hard, slashing our last spider webs and getting slashed by our last thorns. Slightly bloodied but stronger for it, we finished the Knobstone Trail.
I’ve never felt as accomplished as I did that day. I didn’t exactly rebound from my little meltdown, but I grew stronger. And I’d wager that strength is more desirable in the long run than the alternate tale of inhuman perfection. No, I very un-glamorously hiked the Knobstone Trail and I did it with the best partner imaginable.